Republic of Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni has cast his net further afield as he prepares for next month's 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifier in Bulgaria. The Italian today named a 25-man squad for the friendly with Nigeria at Craven Cottage on 29 May, and will select his 22 for the European Zone, Group 8 match in Sofia on 6 June from that party of players.
Stoke midfielder Liam Lawrence's form in his club's successful fight for English Premier League survival was rewarded with a call-up, while there were places too for Preston defenders Eddie Nolan and Sean St Ledger, which will perhaps provide some consolation for their Championship play-off disappointment.
There was also a place for 22-year-old Coventry City forward Leon Best. However, the injured Noel Hunt was missing along with Alex Bruce, Damien Delaney, Steve Finnan and Darren O'Dea from the squad initially named for the last two qualifiers against Bulgaria and Italy.
"Preparations for the game against Nigeria on May 29 will allow us to see some new players who have distinguished themselves during the course of the last season, and also to welcome back players like Caleb Folan and Kevin Foley," said Trapattoni.
"Nigeria is a powerhouse of African football, with many strong and fast players who are playing for top clubs in England and Europe. They will provide a challenging test before the very important World Cup qualifier in Bulgaria on June 6."
A positive result in Sofia would cement the unbeaten Republic's second-place standing in Group 8, behind reigning world champions Italy. Bulgaria managed to hold Trapattoni's side to a 1-1 draw at Croke Park in March, when Kevin Kilbane's late own-goal cancelled out Richard Dunne's opener.
However, the Irish made amends in Bari four days later, when captain Robbie Keane's 88th-minute strike ensured they returned with a point after Vincenzo Iaquinta had put the ten-man Azzurri in front. Republic of Ireland currently trail Italy by two points and are five better off then their nearest rivals for the runners-up spot, Bulgaria.
A draw would maintain that gap and a victory extend it with just three games to play - a difficult trip to Cyprus, where the wheels came off in UEFA EURO 2008 qualifying, and the visits of Italy and Montenegro. That would give them a genuine platform to push for South Africa 2010 qualification, although no-one is taking anything for granted.
"We have done well in the qualifiers, but if we want to progress then the Bulgaria game is the kind we need to win," said Stoke midfielder Glenn Whelan, who has become a fixture in Trapattoni's side. "We have to work hard and do things right. It would be unbelievable to get to the finals, but I am taking it one step at a time."